my planet sweet on a silver salver

Suppose the Sun let out a massive electromagnetic pulse tomorrow evening, as it is within its rights to do.

Ironically, we’re most familiar about the EMPs caused by nuclear detonations – the effects of a geomagnetic storm we can only speculate at. But it’s pretty certain that a solar flare of sufficient size could cause an E3 pulse that would affect most of the planet. This would short out every power transformer, rendering the world black and lightless.

It’s not clear, based on my casual reading, whether a solar flare would also generate an E1 pulse, the kind that ruins computers. But it sounds plausible, especially with a big enough solar event. So let’s say that happens, too.

Every computer on Earth is blanked and fried. Every power station on Earth starts spitting black smoke. Everything stops.

Then what?

  1. More than half of the world’s humans don’t even notice.

  2. Communications grind to a halt. Even presuming your cell phone survived the E1 pulse, the cell tower relies on computers – and electrical power – to rout your call. Landlines would still work, except the switching centers also rely on both computers and electricity. Any region that’s still served by an operator and a switching board has communication. Everyone else can fall back on shortwave radio – unless the aforementioned solar flare has fucked up the ionosphere so much that radio signals are no longer intelligible.

  3. Food riots within a month conservatively – maybe even two weeks. While interstate trucking (the source of most American foodstuff) still works, nobody knows what trucks to send where. Food shipment relies on a complex system of transactions, few of which are possible without communications (see point #2). Folks in the Heartlands might be okay for a while.

  4. Water treatment plants in the major cities fail. Flushed sewage begins seeping into groundwater. Dysentery, cholera and typhoid return to the Eastern seaboard.

And these are just the things we know will happen. There are plenty of things we can infer – looting, anarchy, etc. After all, guns still work just fine.

I started thinking about all this, oddly, because of the dinosaurs.

So much of human knowledge is stored digitally in this century, and we’re only going to add more. If something happened to destroy that knowledge, what would a species of alien archaeologists think of us, millions of years from now?

Maybe dinosaurs had rich and fulfilling aesthetic lives. Maybe they had immense solar-powered machines, designed to break down into biodegradeable cruft after a few uses. A massive asteroid impact that blotted out the sun would render these machines useless, destroying dino society.

Sure, they wouldn’t all die out instantly. The hardy ones, capable of adapting to a hunting/foraging lifestyle, would survive for millions of years. It just wouldn’t be much of a life worth living. They would spend monotonous days snatching at lesser herbivores, fumbling blindly through the decaying remains of the once great Dinosaur Empire.


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